The cultural dialectics of chamber music: Adorno and the visual-acoustic imaginary of bildung

Richard Leppert

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Theodor Adorno was born in 1903, six years after the death of Brahms. Like Brahms, he was a pianist and a composer – in the opinion of his teacher Alban Berg, he had considerable talent, as Berg conveyed to Schoenberg; like Brahms, he wrote chamber music and vocal music, though by no stretch very much of it (Berg admired his String Quartet). But of course he is better known as a philosopher and aesthetician, a musicologist and literary critic, a notable cultural theorist, and among the most important sociologists of music in the last century. And like Brahms, he was duly steeped in the German cultural traditions of the nineteenth century, and was himself very much a product of cultural Bildung; at the same time he was appropriately dialectically critical of the bourgeois ideological foundation upon which it rested. More to the point, he was all too keenly aware that he entered the world at a moment of enormous transformational change, too much of it dystopian, and especially, if hardly exclusively, for the country of his birth, whose once-liberal political traditions both defined and perpetuated cultural Bildung. There is no better place to consider Adorno’s thinking about Bildung than a brief, aphoristic essay that he wrote in 1933, when he had just turned thirty: a look back at what he had experienced – a happiness, now lost – during his upper-middle-class childhood spent in Frankfurt am Main, not coincidentally Germany’s most politically progressive city in the early twentieth century. This happiness was largely defined by music: music at home, piano music, and in particular four-hand arrangements. He called the little essay ‘Vierhändig, noch einmal’ (‘Four Hands, Once Again’), by which he meant once more, but then no more. Vierhändig nowadays conjures up something a bit quaint – or, better, archaic, which is Adorno’s point precisely, exclaimed in sadness. He was writing about music played at home, when the word ‘home’ – and indeed ‘homeland’ – was rapidly being transformed: politically instrumentalised, redefined into something grotesque in service to the National Socialist new order.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationBrahms in the Home and the Concert Hall
Subtitle of host publicationBetween Private and Public Performance
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781107337404
ISBN (Print)9781107042704
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

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